Monday, 22 June 2015

30 Days Wild: Day 22 - Buy British to protect wildlife.

Today’s “something wild” has taken me in a completely different direction, geographically and metaphorically.  After a week darn sarf today I visited Penrith and District Farmers Mart (PDFM) to learn more about Cumbrian livestock farming.  I was the guest of Adam Day, one of the auctioneers and author of “To Bid Them Farewell: A Foot& Mouth Diary”, a realistic account of just what it was like for farmers living through the Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) crisis in Cumbria.

Having read the book while doing a spot of research and been moved by it I tracked Adam down to arrange a visit to the auction in an attempt to throw a bit of light on this important aspect of Cumbrian life.

This auction really only exists as a result of FMD, which decimated livestock in Cumbria.  The owners of the market, Penrith Farmers’ and Kidds (PFK) closed the market following FMD believing that there wasn’t enough stock to keep it going.  A group of farmers thought otherwise and got together to form PDFM, they rent the market from PFK and over the last 10 years the market has thrived.

Although stock levels have gone back up nationally there are 35% fewer sheep than there were pre- FMD.  In areas like the Lake District, that percentage is far greater, due in part to changes in government policy.  Historically the focus was very much on production levels which is why EU butter mountains, cheese mountains and milk lakes came to exist.  These days the focus has shifted from production to the environment, hence the reduction in the numbers of livestock. 

It’s easy to say that balancing the needs of the environment and the needs of the farmer is tricky, but there’s more to it than that.  It’s not just the needs of the farmer that have to be taken into account; we must also consider the levels of food production needed to feed a growing world population. (WHO estimate that the world population will grow from 7.2 billion now to 9.6 billion in 2050 and 10.9 billion by 2100 and that’s a lot of mouths to feed.)

Farmers face a unique challenge; in no other industry would you invest time, money and effort into a product with no clear idea as to what it will eventually sell for.  When your stock is in prime condition and ready for sale it needs to go to market, but beef prices can fluctuate so it’s possible your stock could hit the market during a price dip and potentially wipe out any profit you might have hoped to make.

Auctions such as PDFM offer farmers 3 key benefits:

  1. The farmer has some control over the price because, as with any auction, they can refuse to sell if the price stays too low, plus they get a guaranteed price at the fall of the hammer. If they sell direct to an abattoir price deductions can be made without any recourse to the farmer. 
  2. The auction house seeks to provide a competitive ring of buyers for all types of livestock, from those that are primed and ready for market to those which require some time feeding on lowland pastures before they’re ready.
  3. The auctions have a strong social aspect allowing the farmers to get together over a coffee and bacon roll in the cafe.

As I looked around I noticed that there weren’t that many young faces and this is a big issue facing British farming – it’s a physically demanding 7 day a week job with unpredictable and rarely bountiful financial rewards and this is leading to many sons and daughters deserting the family trade. As well as auctioneering, Adam is soon to join the Farmer Network, a not for profit organisation which seeks to promote farming in Cumbria and The Yorkshire Dales. One of the benefits they provide members with is essential skills training for young farmers.

It was my first experience of a livestock auction and I was initially worried I might blow my nose and inadvertently buy a cow, but the buyers congregate around the edge of the ring so I felt quite safe in one of the back row seats well away from the action.  Hats off to the auctioneers though for spotting those bidding, often a raised finger or a nod was all it took to make a bid, it seems farmers aren’t ones for big gestures.  It was also hard to tell if the farmer selling was pleased with his lot or not – I really wouldn’t want to play poker with any of them.

I can report that the auctioneer does rattle off prices at the speed you’d expect them to, but after a few lots you do get your ear in and begin to pick things up.  Most of the cattle seemed to go for between £800 and £1200 each and there wasn’t a lot of difference in price between bullocks and heifers (sorry Adam if I’m getting any of the terminology wrong!). 

The lower priced cattle are generally the ones reared on hilly pastures where the grass isn’t so great and they’re bought by lowland farmers who grow their own grain ready to feed them up.  Other farmers will usually be buying to add to their stock or for breeding potential. (There is a technical term for this - “stratification”. It means that the upland areas are breeding grounds for hardy healthy young stock which are then bought by people on better lowland grounds to grow them and fatten them. It is the essential movement of animals down the hill, so that everyone in the chain makes a profit, and all types of farm continues to exist and thrive. That is why thousands of farmers in the South visit northern auctions in the autumn to buy sheep and cattle.)

Most of the cows seemed unconcerned with proceedings as they wandered around the ring poking their noses through the bars, some of them got a friendly scratch on the nose while others got a quick tap, especially if they got their noses too close to a flask of tea.

Chatting to Adam afterwards I asked about the environment/ farming balance.  He told me the majority of farmers are keen to do what they can to support wildlife but traditional farming methods such as hedging, ditching etc are more costly, this means that unless farmers are getting a fair price for their livestock (or their crops) they don’t have the money to invest in such things and are more likely to resort to cheaper alternatives. 

There’s no one perfect answer to the environment/ farming debate and everybody seems to have an opinion, but we do need to look after our farmers because ultimately they look after our landscape. If we buy British wherever possible we can support farmers and enable them to work in partnership with environmental organisations to maintain the landscape and this, in turn, will benefit the wildlife by improving habitats and protecting ecosystems.  Plus, by buying British, you’ve zero chance of ending up with horse in your lasagne...

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